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Australian coronavirus death toll rises to 24 as Victoria records sixth death

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 2/04/2020
The normally busy streets of Lygon St in Carlton were empty on March 31, 2020 as restrictions on movement came into force. (ABC News: Ron Ekkel) © Provided by ABC NEWS The normally busy streets of Lygon St in Carlton were empty on March 31, 2020 as restrictions on movement came into force. (ABC News: Ron Ekkel)

One of Melbourne's biggest hospitals has revealed a COVID-19 cluster that emerged in its cancer ward has claimed the life of a third patient, bringing the national toll to 24.

This afternoon, Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton confirmed on Twitter that a woman aged in her 60s died in a Melbourne hospital last night.

The woman was one of several inpatients and staff at The Alfred's haematology and oncology ward who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The hospital revealed the first two patient deaths on Friday, as it urgently investigated the source of the infections.

Today, the hospital announced a third patient from the ward had died after contracting COVID-19.

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Two other patients from the ward have tested positive and remain in a stable condition, while 10 staff have the virus and are recovering at home, the hospital said in a statement.

"Our thoughts are with the family and friends of our patient, who passed away yesterday," Alfred Health chief executive Andrew Way said.

Victoria's Health Minister Jenny Mikakos this morning announced the state's fifth death, a woman aged in her 70s who also died in a Victorian hospital.

The national death toll now sits at 24, which includes an 85-year-old man who died in Queensland overnight.

Six deaths have been recorded in Victoria, 10 in New South Wales, three in Queensland, and five in other states and territories.

As of 6:00am this morning, there were 4,976 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, according to the Department of Health.

Nearly 2,300 — or about half — of the cases are in New South Wales, followed by Victoria, which now has 1,036 confirmed cases.

Victoria pushes past 1,000 cases

Thirty-six Victorians are hospitalised with the virus, including six who are in intensive care, while 422 people have recovered.

Another 68 people were diagnosed in the state overnight, and the number of suspected community transmissions jumped to 57.

Community transmissions are when people contract the virus, but health authorities are unable to trace the spread of the disease back to someone who has arrived in Australia from overseas.

Ms Mikakos said authorities would not be releasing more detailed information about people who had died from the virus out of respect to their loved ones.

She added the jump in suspected community transmissions was "concerning" and could lead to further shutdown measures if people did not follow the rules.

"We have to assess that on a day-by-day basis," she said.

In a bid to slow the spread of the virus, Victoria has restricted gatherings to just two people and banned leaving the house for "non-essential" reasons.

New restrictions will take time to have an effect

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said due to the incubation time of the virus, the effectiveness of the latest restrictions would not be seen for another week or so.

"It's also important to recognise that there will be more community transmission out there that hasn't yet been detected," Professor Sutton said.

"It's absolutely a concern to see a rise, and these physical-distancing measures are exactly the things that we're putting in place to address that risk."

Professor Sutton said more than 100 healthcare workers had so far been diagnosed with the virus, about 10 per cent of total cases in the state.

"I can't be more grateful for those people who are putting themselves at the coalface with this risk that is apparent," he said.

He said not all healthcare workers caught the virus in the workplace and the majority were either international travellers or in contact with people who had recently returned from overseas.

The Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne has also confirmed a staff member tested positive to coronavirus.

The worker is at home recovering in self-isolation and other staff who were in close contact with the person are also self-isolating for 14 days.

Professor Sutton said the pandemic's peak was still forecast to arrive around May or June, but if the community fully complied with physical-distancing measures, that could be pushed out to a softer peak later in the year, which would relieve pressure on the health system.

He said he was not aware of any clusters among the new cases reported overnight, but a full investigation into them would occur in coming days.

On Wednesday, the Government announced coronavirus testing would be expanded to include police officers, workers in residential care and child protection, and homelessness and disability support workers.

Testing had previously been largely focused on returned overseas travellers and healthcare workers, due to the limited supply of testing kits.

Illegally operating brothel given away by traffic jam outside

Police have so far issued 13 fines during their enforcement of the measures.

Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton said one of the recent fines centred on a brothel operating in the Geelong area.

"We were called there, to this brothel, because the street was that busy at one stage, it became a traffic jam," he said.

"That is absolutely insane in this current environment where we're saying restrict access, do not go anywhere where you don't have to."

Both the business owner and a sex worker were fined.

Deputy Commissioner Patton said police were still investigating allegations a couple on the Mornington Peninsula failed to self-isolate after returning from overseas.

"I understand we're looking into the report from the Portsea alleged breach of isolation guidelines and if it is determined that they were [breaching restrictions] then we'd take action but at this stage we don't have an outcome on that," he said.

Family violence a priority for Victoria Police

Deputy Commissioner Patton said ignorance was "just not going to cut it anymore" when it came to breaches of physical-distancing rules.

"It is so reckless and it's so inconsiderate and so selfish," he said.

"It's frustrating for police officers but it should be frustrating for the community because the community should be looking after one another.

"We can urge the community, we can ask the community, but we've also got a big stick … and we've used that and we'll continue to use that."

He also said officers were preparing a response plan for an anticipated surge in family violence during the pandemic.

"We're trying to look at how we can stay on top of that so we don't see a real escalation. It's one of our number one priorities in terms of attendance," he said.

"The fact that we now have a situation where people have added stress to their lives, many will have been laid off from their jobs and struggling to cope, it is a significant concern for us."

He announced the temporary closure of 40 per cent of police station reception counters, to minimise unnecessary customer contact and free up officers.

Authorities to be 'agile' on restrictions when needed

Under the state's "stage three" shutdown measures, there are four main reasons people are allowed to leave the house: for work, shopping for supplies, for care or for work and education.

Ms Mikakos was questioned on the intricacies of what was defined as exercise and said she urged people to use their "common sense" about activities.

"Even if you're allowed to do something, you should think, is this a good idea? Should I be doing this? Am I potentially exposing others to COVID-19? Am I potentially exposing myself to COVID-19?"

When asked about recreational activities such as fishing, Professor Sutton said "if it's a recreational activity, then it's not on".

Professor Sutton said the rules had "never been written before in Australia" and authorities were open to changes if there were unintended consequences.

"We should be agile in being able to respond to that and I'm happy to do so," he said.

Ms Mikakos acknowledged that some of the confusion around directives was frustrating.

"We've had an unprecedented set of circumstances here," she said.

"There's a lot to absorb here but we're trying to keep it as simple as we can for people to understand what their obligations are, which is to stay at home if you can stay at home."

Childcare centres 'not a significant risk'

Speaking on RN Drive last night, Professor Sutton said a call was likely to be made by Friday on whether schools would reopen next term.

He said today that evidence suggested childcare centres were "not a significant risk, certainly for clusters of cases".

"I think we need to keep watching that, I'll be open to new evidence as it arises, but I want to reflect on it with my counterparts around the country," he said.

"I don't want to be overly precautionary if the evidence doesn't suggest that it will have population-level protection."

Ms Mikakos gave updated information about four infants whose COVID-19 diagnosis was revealed a few days ago, saying that none of them had been at childcare centres when they were unwell.

Private and public hospitals in 'joint effort' against coronavirus

The Government today announced it had finalised a deal with Victoria's private hospitals, so that the healthcare system could combat the pandemic as one.

Ms Mikakos said the deal would secure hundreds of thousands of jobs at the hospitals and deliver an additional 9,000 hospital beds, including 170 ICU beds.

Under the plan, the Government will direct the flow of patients in and out of the private and public hospitals, she said.

Ms Mikakos said more than 4,000 people had registered their interest in coming out of retirement to work in the healthcare system to help in the response to COVID-19, which Professor Sutton said was "such a heartening sign".

Ms Mikakos said the Government was trying to speed up refreshing their registrations so more people could begin working.

Victorian pharmacists will be able to give a flu vaccination to children aged 10 and above and administer the shots in nursing homes and workplaces, which will free up nurse immunisers to do other work.

Ms Mikakos urged Victorians to get the flu shot, which does not prevent COVID-19 but could reduce the strain on the health system.

She said she had heard of some employers cancelling flu-based vaccinations, but said a flu shot was a "legally valid reason for people to leave their home and attend their workplace".

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